Corona-infected patients can now be transported by military helicopter

New capability ready to provide national support

At 20:37 on Good Friday, one of the Swedish Armed Forces helicopters landed for the first time with a brand-new capability; to transport and treat critically ill corona-infected patients, with civilian intensive care equipment. The Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare has requested this capability as a national resource to be used in the entire country, when necessary.

Helicopter 14 has a rear loading ramp at the same height of the transport stretcher, which means that the stretcher can be loaded directly onto the helicopter. Photo: Amanda Öberg/Swedish Armed Forces
Along with the stretchers come a vast amount of medical equipment that can be directly connected to the internal electricity and oxygen system of the helicopter, like here in helicopter 14. Photo: Amanda Öberg/Swedish Armed Forces
In helicopter 16, the stretcher will be placed diagonally across the cabin, with two seats for the medical staff and two extra shelves of oxygen tanks. Photo: Amanda Öberg/Swedish Armed Forces

During the week leading up to Easter, experts from many parts of the Swedish Armed Forces, with support from the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration, and civilian care givers worked on finding a method to combine military and civilian equipment, and to do it in a manner that would ensure safety and security for patient, flight and personnel.

The medium-lift helicopters of the Swedish Armed Forces, helicopter 14 and helicopter 16, already have military medevac capability. The most recent time a medevac unit was deployed by the Helicopter flotilla was in Afghanistan. The difference now is that the helicopters will be equipped and manned by civilian medical technical materiel and health care staff who will be responsible for the patient during the entire trip. Due to the risk of spreading the infection, Covid-19 patients also put other demands on the personnel regarding safety and security.

"Our starting point was to achieve an unbroken care chain. That means using the same stretcher, same technical equipment and medical staff from the hospital of departure, during the transport, and all the way to the receiving hospital; the purpose is to minimise the strain on the patient as much as possible," says lieutenant colonel Mikael Wikh, who has coordinated the operation.

Several things were tested to ensure that there was no interference between the helicopter’s electronics and that of the intensive care equipment. The team also tested how to secure a stretcher and the civilian equipment so it stays in place during the flight, and that it is in a place that allows the medical staff to continue working, as well as how to load the patient onto the helicopter securely and quickly.

"For a couple of hours during the Easter weekend, we borrowed equipment from the airborne intensive care unit at the Akademiska hospital in Uppsala, and together with several units of the Swedish Armed Forces and the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration, we focused solely on solving this task. Problem solving and rapid reaction is a part of what we always have a readiness for. Now, we were able to use this readiness to support our country during the ongoing crisis and it feels really good," says lieutenant colonel Wikh.

The Swedish Armed Forces is in charge of the flight from A to B. The helicopter must carry more than twice the usual amount of oxygen and needs more electricity for the medical care equipment.

After each transport of a corona-infected patient, the helicopter must be decontaminated. It will be possible to sanitise the helicopter quickly, in approximately one hour, as the cabin is practically empty and the cockpit is sealed off to the cabin. No Swedish Armed Forces personnel will come in direct contact with the patients that will arrive intubated, anesthetized and accompanied by their own medical staff. Special provisions have been produced regarding necessary personal protection equipment, and how the crew must act in various situations.